*RANT* Uppity Research Makes the Baby Mario Cry! *RANT*

So this is going to be a rant inspired by the article Ivy-Covered Console. I am glad that our work is getting some press, but it seems that this article is built on some frustrating biases.

First, let me say it. We all know that the only reason that this conference that the article is about is not the first videogame conference, nor is it the biggest. Yet it gets coverage in the New York Times which spends a lot of money with commercials trying to convince me to have it delivered to me even though I live in Indiana. Sure lots of people think the New York Times is hot shit, so in some ways it is great that this article exists. Of course the only reason why it exists is that this conference is taking place at an Ivy-League School. So at the heart of this article is elitism. Something I have little patience for. What do you expect from someone that has a Master’s degree in Popular Culture?

Again, I suppose I should be thankful that this isn’t yet another article that talks about how evil videogames are and features lots of unchallenged quotes from my favorite lawyer, Jack Thompson. However, much of what is written in this article just makes me sad if this is what the future of videogame studies holds.

I originally wrote a blow by blow account of why I dislike this article, however, I figured that came of as bitter for even me.

The article is basically an exercise in elitism written for an elitist paper. That is my problem with the article. In my opinion, videogames and videogame studies should not try to emulate elitist, exclusionary practices of the ivory tower. One sample passage reads, “Video-game studies is still a nascent field, too young to have a standard list of must-play games…” No, no, no. Lists are for suckers. Literature departments have spent decades realizing that their cannons were too narrow. Let us not have a cannon. A cannon by its very nature is exclusionary. So what if we all thing that Half-Life is the best thing ever and Codename: Nina is crap, but does that mean that we shouldn’t at least look at it and figure out how such crap came to be? Obviously there are only a certain number of games that one person can play, but the minute we, as academics, start making up a cannon of videogames, then we are putting up walls and limits. There is tons an tons of crap out there, but crap is worth looking at. If we have to start using a cannon to tell ourselves which games are “worthy” of out time, then we might as well go back to more traditional fields.

Then the article goes on to talk about Aristotle and Shakespeare. Now I know the writer of the article is not only trying to write an article about why videogames are worthy of study but is also trying to justify to his readers why videogame studies is worthy of having an article in the oh so prestigious New York Times. However, call me narrow minded, but there is a reason why I left my career in the English Department behind and part of that reason is so that I don’t need to talk about white guys who died before the light bulb was invented. Drawing on those names is an obvious attempt to justify our work, not only to ourselves, but the readers of the New York Times. I’ve made my opinion on this clear already. I’m taking a class right now with some wonderful people who are writing about 18th century literature. They are great intelligent people. However, you tell me, whose work is more relevant? Call me crazy, but if anyone has to justify their work, it ain’t me. As a field, I think that the attempt to legitimize our field is totally a waste of time. People who get it, already get it. People who don’t, never will. We don’t need videogames to be art. I’ve already written about that in the past. Art is exclusionary and elitist. Why would we want people like that to like us? Why would we want to be those people? Now I enjoy art, but I do not put definitions on what art is, and find definitional argumetns tiresome.

Finally, the article ends with, “But I don’t want to draw the comparison between Arc the Lad and ‘Ulysses,’ ” Dr. Palmer said, “because that would be very, very wrong.” You know what else is wrong? Being an elitist bastard. It is wrong to compare a game and work of literature? Fuck that. Now, his comment is a bit ambiguous. Why is it wrong? I would like to think that it is wrong simply because they are very different. I’ve never played Arc the Lad and have never read Ulysses (I never got around to that one when I was getting my Bachelor’s in English), so I don’t know. However, the most obvious interpretation is that Arc is not in the same ballpark as Ulysses. The only thing I can say to that to think that a videogame is a worthy comparison to a book is sad. Videogame studies is a new field and if we have such an inferiority complex that we cannot make some bold assertions with confidence, then maybe there isn’t any hope for us. I’m sure Dr. Palmer is a fine person, but that line needs some explanation.

This article is nice in that it gets the general public aware, but it represents a lot of what I hate about academia and what I am actively trying to work against. If videogame studies is going to be about consciously replicating the biases and elitism of old disciplines, it will be at the cost of the work by people on the fringes who have made it possible to study videogames in the first place. We need to stop legitimizing our work and simply start doing our work. If we do that, then the quality of the work will legitimize itself without having to buy into the elitist establishments of the academy or newspapers.

11 Comments Showing 50 most recent
  1. jvm

    Stick it to the man!

    Frankly, I think I both agree and disagree with what you’ve said. I’m not sure yet how I feel about your research and your approach to “the field”, but at the same time the talk of many academics gives me the same kind of allergic reaction that you’ve demonstrated in this post.

    Let me ask you a question: do you read ludology.org? Care to share any reaction to reading that author’s reaction to the NYT piece?

    I have some mixed feelings about all of this, but not nearly coherent enough for a rant. Congrats on putting something out there, vitriol and bile that it is, so that folks like me have another view to balance as we decide our own views.

    BTW, you might want to calm down and go back through to fix up some typos. For example “cannon” should be “canon” and so forth. Your emotion is there, but the fingers seem to have got away from you.

  2. bryan young

    Thanks for the comments.
    I actually toned down the harshness. You should see the first draft.
    I think that ludology.org is a great site and I agree with a lot of what he says.
    While I do have a degree in English, spelling has always been my weakness. I have mixed ethical feelings about correcting spelling. I am embaraced by them, but on the other hand, I sort of feel it dishonest to go back and change things once I hit publish.

  3. Dexter Palmer

    Dear sir–

    I’m sure that you’re a fine person, but in your rush to pillory Ivy-League academia and frame me as a–what was that? “Elitist bastard?”–you seem to have barrelled past the sentences in that paragraph in the NYT article that made its salient point–that videogame critics should do the work of seeking out difficult and obscure games, analyzing them and bringing them to the public, instead of just sticking to certain popular, top-selling games like The Sims and Grand Theft Auto. Which is one of the points that you yourself made in your “rant,” and a point that you might have been more receptive to in the original NYT article if you hadn’t come to it with certain, shall we say, anti-Ivy-League preconceptions. The “frustrating biases” you cite seem to be ones that you brought with you to your reading of the article, rather than ones inherent in the article itself. And let me assure you that the people that came to the conference this weekend (which was open to the public, and well attended) found it anything but “elitist.”

    As for the statement of mine you quoted–if you’d read Ulysses and played Arc 2, you’d see that they’re not the same: that’s obvious. What that statement alludes to is something I say earlier in the article, about the papers we rejected for the conference–that a number of video game critics, especially those working in America, are attempting to fit square pegs in round holes by applying existing theories of other genres to a new genre that doesn’t support them, and that it’s wrong to do so. Which, again, is something that you yourself seem to imply in your response, but it seems, regrettably, that it was overly difficult for you to imagine a resident of the “ivory tower” saying the same thing as well.

    One more thing–Arc 2 and Ulysses are both excellent: you should give them a try in your spare time. –Dexter Palmer

  4. ouijaboy

    Hey jccalhoun –

    You’re an idiot. Educate yourself. Stop giving middle Americans a bad name.


  5. ouijaboy

    OK – I guess my original take was a bit harsh as well. Sorry jccalhoun.

    I’m not commenting on your spelling. I just feel that you might not have understood the basic premise of what Dr. Palmer and the conference organizers were trying to accomplish.

    Check out http://www.buzzcut.com – the author of that site was one of the presenters at the conference. I think you’ll see that NYT and “ivy League” do not necessarily in and of themselves constitute elitism.


  6. bryan young

    First, I’m not sure if you read my followup post or not, but I do regret some of the language that I used in that post, however, I feel it dishonest to go back and change it once it is published, so I am willing to live with the fallout.

    Secondly, you write, “I’m sure that you’re a fine person, but in your rush to pillory Ivy-League academia and frame me as a–what was that? “Elitist bastard?”–you seem to have barrelled past the sentences in that paragraph in the NYT article that made its salient point–that videogame critics should do the work of seeking out difficult and obscure games, analyzing them and bringing them to the public, instead of just sticking to certain popular, top-selling games like The Sims and Grand Theft Auto.”

    I fully disagree with that statement. You write that I myself make this point. If I did, then I appologize because that is far, far from what I meant. I see myself fully opposed to such a notion.

    I am highly uninterested in difficult and obscure games, I am very interested in popular games. Actually, I should correct that, from an academic standpoint, I’m not interested in games of any sort really, I’m interested in the people who play them. I want to know why so many people like GTA3 or Counter-Strike. I have next to no interest in something that people are not playing. And I honestly see any attempt to seek out games that people do not actually play as going a long way to replicate what I see as the faults of film peoople who go on and on about this great movie that no one watches or literature people who devote their lives to works that no one has ever heard of. Certainly people are free to do that, and I do not exclude the possibility that something good will come from it. However, it seems elitist and exclusionary. Thus, far from actually meaning to state that videogame scholars should seek out difficult and obscure games, I feel that such an attempt is, in my eyes, elitist.

    I fully meant to admit when I said that I have a degree in popular culture that I have biases. If that was not clear, then I appologize. I am generally very upfront in my privledging of the popular over the elite.

    As far as the quote in question is concerned, I am sure that Ulyssess aren Arc the Lad are fine, I simply haven’t gotten the time to get to them. However, as I tried to explain in the rant, that line still is unclear. Your explanation, while appreciated, still does not make clear to me why comparing the two is “wrong.” Why is it wrong? Is it because it is wrong to compare videogames and books period or is it that comparing those two particular works is wrong?

    I hope that this has made my position a little more clear. Again, I do regret my phrasing in that paragraph. And I do appreciate your taking the time to respond.

  7. Evan Machlan

    Brian writes:

    > “I’m not interested in games…from an academic standpoint, I’m interested in the people who play them.”

    So what we really have is two separate (“elite?”) disciplines in a cage match: Sociology vs. Ludology.

    That would make a pretty disgusting game, don’t you think?

    Point is, there’s room on this virtual planet for all kinds of intellectual pursuits. Dig?


  8. bryan young


    Certainly there is room for lots of differnt approaches. (I wouldn’t say I’m sociological though, more anthropological or folkloristic)
    However, I STILL think that the way that the article is written puts forth a picture of an elitist game-centered analysis (I’m hesitant to call it textual analysis as even that is a bit limiting in some ways).

    I think that game-centered analysis does not have to be elitist. I think what is going on here is a debate over the definition of “elitist.” Spring break is this week, and hopefully I will find time to write a more civilized manifesto of what I mean.

    Thanks for the input.

  9. meredith

    I agree that a lot of the disagreement going on here is over the definition of “elitist.” I’m seeing, I think, two different working definitions in the posts above. First, I see Bryan’s, where he defines “elitist” as anything that excludes the popular in favor of the (I don’t want to say artistic, because I believe the popular and the artistic aren’t mutually exclusive), let’s say, more avant-garde works, or those that some scholars believe have been unjustifiably forgotten by the mainstream. The other working definition of elitism is (I think), the wish to avoid the exclusion of everything *but* those works which are popularly accepted. (This is the whole “tyranny of the majority” school of thought, with which I often sympathize, except when it makes me read Melville.) If I have understood either of these definitions incorrectly, I apologize, but I think the heart of this disagreement is the fact that people are using the same words to mean different things.
    Also, I believe that Bryan’s main point about elitism is that he does not want to see the field of videogame studies devolve into warring camps, some of whom believe that you can only study the “difficult and obscure,” or those texts which obviously “deserve” our intellectual efforts and others who believe that only “popular” or mainstream games should be studied. I can see where both types of work can be performed, and where a lot of useful interplay between the two can occur if communication is kept open.
    I think that one of the resons this debate is so heated is that scholars on both sides have to justify their efforts in many fields of study. (For instance, in film studies you have to argue the usefulness of studying the avant-garde just as much as you have to justify writing about “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Both can tell us something about our culture, but in this political climate both have to be justified.) We compete for funding and jobs, which often makes us sever important avenues of communication between each other.
    Ok, this has turned into my own personal rant, so I’ll stop!

  10. Evan Machlan

    Yes. If Bryan’s original point is that we must avoid the temptation to “form the canon” (especially if it involves some analogous definition of “literariness”), I wholeheartedly agree. Additionally I think his point about NYT not noticing the field until the Princeton conference is a valid example of elitism.

    But, as Meredith points out (though not exactly in these words): Don’t shoot the piano player! The fact that the Princeton conference had an unfair media advantage does not make the conference invalid. I think if everyone takes a moment to look around we’ll see we’re all on the same team.


  11. Dexter Palmer

    Good post, Meredith.

    I think it also bears clarifying that what’s considered “popular” and “obscure” among academics and scholars of popular culture is a matter of perspective. Popular culture studies, like popular culture itself, is subject to trends that scholars themselves are often unaware of, and a distinction between “popular” and “obscure” sets up a false dichotomy that’s harmful to this kind of discourse. (Going back to Arc 2–that particular game was one of the biggest-selling games on the PS1 in Japan and moved millions of copies, but is “obscure” to the particular academic community in question here, and to American audiences in general to a lesser extent.) This is also why Bryan’s stated confusion about my statement, and his subsequent professed disinterest in “obscure” works is in itself confusing to me: he claims that “Lists are for suckers,” but doesn’t realize that when critics don’t actively seek out games that don’t fit their criteria for being “popular,” (or, more accurately, only examine those games that their particular academic perspective defines as “popular”), they themselves become one of the creators of the canonical list of works that he seems to denigrate. (This ties into one of the definitions of “elitism” cited by Meredith in the post above.)

    Another false dichotomy here is between “popular” and “elite.” To take the example of Ulysses, a large part of the reason that Ulysses has become the sterotypical example of a “difficult work” is because it’s full of popular-culture references that are becoming increasingly lost to history–if you’re willing to do the research necessary to acquire the library of pop-culture knowledge that will let you put yourself in the position of a Dublin citizen of 1904, the book becomes much easier to read (well, except for “Circe,” but you get the point). In short, what pop-culture studies considers to be “pop-culture” can suffer from its own kind of exclusion–many Joyce scholars would probably consider themselves to be students of popular culture, if you asked them. We’re all on the same team here–it’s just a matter of having a different perspective.

    Re: comparing videogames and books–in the sentence above I’m referring to those particular works, not their respective genres. I don’t intend to make a blanket statement about whether videogames should be compared to books, one way or the other–sometimes they should, and sometimes they shouldn’t.

    I don’t understand why game-centered (or formalist) analysis is something that’s considered “elitist,” though, no matter what definition you’re working with.

    With that, I’m off to order some business cards that have “Elitist Bastard” printed on them in large, golden letters.

    On preview: also, what Evan said.